Regimental Combat Team 6, 1st Marine Division
FORWARD OPERATING BASE JACKSON, Afghanistan – The tent looks like all the others around here: tan canvas, zipper doors and Velcro all around. Marines pass by without giving it a second glance, heading to work, the gym or guard duty.
Inside the tent, it’s hotter than the blazing Afghan sun. The strong aroma of grilled chicken and seasonings fills the room. The Marines work furiously, moving from tables to sinks to shelves and back again.
It’s noon, five hours before dinner, but these Marines know it takes hours of preparation to feed more than 400 hungry Marines.
“In the hours beforehand, we are taking portion counts and making a complete menu,” said Marine Corps Cpl. Peter Espinoza, food service chief, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.
Espinoza, from Chicago, said it’s especially important for Marines to get a balanced meal while in a deployed environment. Marines are patrolling and standing guard in Afghan heat. If they don’t get the right nutrients they can go down from heat exhaustion and fatigue, he explained.
“They are working so hard out here, so I make sure they have a starch, a protein, vegetables and plenty of fluids,” Espinoza said.
Tonight, the Marines are eating steak and chicken fajitas, with onions, peppers, rice and pita bread. Espinoza said the hot food is great for Marines who normally eat packaged, shelf-stable meals in the field.
“They come into the [mess] hall and see a vat full of hot food and their eyes light up,” said Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Thomas Nichols, food service specialist. Nichols, from Williamsburg, Va., said he takes pride in knowing he’s helping the morale of the troops. He knows they are hungry after a day of patrolling, he said, and is happy to help.
The adverse conditions here pose a challenge for food service specialists in keeping food sanitary.
“There is a lot of dust everywhere, and with the hot weather, you really have to keep hot things hot and cold things cold,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza keeps his workstation organized to help sanitation. He keeps food separate and designates certain work areas inside the tent for specific tasks. He and Nichols improvise at times, using a makeshift grill or experimenting with desserts.
“We don’t have the things we normally have back in [the States],” said Espinoza, whose family owns several restaurants in Chicago. “We have to work with what we have.”
Nichols said that while the tools may be different in a deployment, the mission is not: to feed and fuel Marines.
After everyone eats and the mess hall quiets down, two Marines are left. Espinoza and Nichols stay after serving the other Marines to clean up and prepare for breakfast. They’ll wake up early to have a hot breakfast ready for the Marines to start their day. They know they’re contributing to the mission by providing the fuel behind the battalion.